Two Authors, and the History of Two Centuries

This post is the complete opposite of my last one about an old time Christmas celebration, which came easily and took a short time to write.  A month’s wave of procrastination does not change the will to begin it.

You may notice, while you’re reading, that these words exist in a slightly more streamlined format.  This is I suppose in part due to the style of someone I’ve been thinking about for many weeks – a writer whom I admired greatly – Sylvia Jukes Morris.

Image result for edmund and sylvia morris

The Morrises chat with President and Mrs. Reagan in the 80s.  (NY Times)

It was a shock to learn in early January that she had passed away at her sister’s home in England,  only eight months after her husband’s death from a sudden stroke.

Sylvia was the author of three definitive biographies, one volume on Edith Roosevelt, and two on Clare Boothe Luce.  The latter, of the twentieth century elite, is probably not a household name, but her life story embodies the society and politics of the time.

Sylvia was married for fifty years to Edmund Morris, Pulitzer Prize winner and prolific biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ludwig von Beethoven, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Edison.  Like his wife, he found the research on Roosevelt too much to present in a single book, so ultimately he composed a trilogy.  The sum of their work adds much to our knowledge of the 1800s and the 1900s.

Sylvia and Edmund were a team unequaled in talent, poise and personality.  They invited my daughter and I to their Manhattan home in 2006.  We were doing research at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and I’d asked for an interview.  It helped that my husband had created a model of Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt family home, for Mr. Morris.

I remember a spectacular, monochromatic apartment with stairs leading up to a bookcase-lined mezzanine which overlooked Central Park.  The couple pulled some of their books and autographed them for us.  My daughter identified a modern artist whose original painting hung on their dining room wall, with Edmund complimenting her,  “Good eye!”

We saw them again at a Theodore Roosevelt Association book talk in New York City a few years later.  “Margaret!” she said warmly in her beautiful British voice.  I was pleased she remembered me, and we told her we’d seen her recently on C-Span’s Book TV.

I was hoping very much to go to a book signing when Edmund’s Edison was published, but it was not to be.  The first bound book was delivered to their home in Connecticut shortly before he died.  Then, I hoped we could see her after her period of grief subsided, but that was not to be, either.  “It doesn’t get better – it gets worse,” she told a friend in the fall.

They were so close.  And perhaps it was merciful that she didn’t have to face her first Valentine’s Day without him, but instead join him where their marriage had been made.

A moving tribute to Sylvia may be found at this link:

Left to Us

After Theodore Roosevelt’s brief funeral service in January 1919,  mourners followed pallbearers up a steep grade to the burial place in Oyster Bay, Long Island.  The American flag was askew on the coffin, as Theodore’s clothes often were.  Today there are twenty-six steps on the hill, one for every president until him.  Descendants say one of their uncles used to make them recite the presidents from Washington to TR as they walked up.

We toured Youngs Cemetery on the day after the annual Theodore Roosevelt Association meeting.  Theodore and Edith, as well as many of their family members, rest here.  Since it was two days after the 158th anniversary of his birth, we were able to see the wreath from the White House.  Did you know the sitting president sends one to all former presidents’ graves on their birthdays?

Close by is the first national Audubon bird sanctuary.  Theodore’s cousin, Emlen, donated fifteen acres to honor the president’s efforts in saving America’s wildlife and their habitats.  When they were boys, the two had had their own little nature collection, the “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History,” in their bedrooms.  Only it wasn’t so small, growing to about 1,000 specimens!  Now people of all ages come to enjoy the same peaceful woodsy surroundings, watch birds, and learn about things Theodore loved all of his life.  Four hundred children a month attend camps here during the summer.

We watched as a group of kids learned about turtles in the crisp autumn air.  Certainly Theodore would have liked the program when he was their age.  When he grew up, he set aside almost a quarter of a billion acres of America’s land into national parks and sanctuaries so our children, and children’s children, would be able to see them.  He left to us an amazing gift.  It is left to us to continue conserving it.

The Stars of Sagamore Hill

Last weekend my husband and I crunched on falling leaves over an expansive lawn to a special open house.  We’d been invited to tour Sagamore Hill, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt on Long Island, recently renovated over a three-year period.

The 28-room Queen Anne Victorian was built in 1884.  Theodore’s first wife Alice had just died, but his sister urged him to carry out plans for it overlooking the bay so his little daughter would have a place to call home.  Eventually, so did second wife Edith and five more children.





From the wide veranda the family had an unobstructed view of the water.  Since their time trees have grown to block it.  The family especially enjoyed adventures outdoors with friends and cousins, including young Eleanor Roosevelt.



Mrs. Roosevelt’s drawing room is decidedly different from the others in the home, but a polar bear rug presented to her by Admiral Peary does warm the floor boards.





The family’s 8,000 books were carefully wrapped and stored during the renovation.  Sagamore Hill’s furniture and possessions were left virtually intact when Edith Roosevelt died in 1948.  The property was given to the Roosevelt Memorial Association and later to the National Park Service.


An owl from TR’s amazing bird collection watches over the third floor gun room, where he liked to write.  Below, in the North Room addition of 1904, are momentos of the Roosevelt presidency.  The large book on the table was a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany before World War 1.




Chairs in drafty rooms often have a throw or two over their backs.  Usually they don’t include tails, though.


A perfect end to the visit was sitting on a rocking chair on the porch, watching the flag wave against the sunset.


Calf Rassling

This is the first person account of a wild and wooly family camping trip in the late Nineteenth Century.  I presented it this summer as Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Theodore’s younger sister, close to the place where it happened.

Model of the Elkhorn Ranch House near Medora, North Dakota.

In the late summer of 1890, Mr. Robinson and I, my sister Anna and our friend Bob Ferguson accompanied my brother and his wife Edith back to his ranch in Medora. We arrived by train at four in the morning, it being dark and very muddy from the rain. We made the 40 mile trip to the ranch by wagon, fording the Little Missouri River 23 times before we got there.

Our day at the cattle round-up was one of the most fascinating days of my life. We lunched at the wagon, galloped across the grassy plateaus, and sat under the cottonwood trees by the banks of the river.

On the last day, Will Merrifield and Sylvane Ferris planned a surprise for my brother and my husband. One had shown me the method of throwing a calf, and the other taught me how to rope it.  About 3 o’clock all members of our party and the cowboys were invited to sit on the fence of the corral and watch.

With a severe rain the evening before, it was mud walled in by a fence, with only one animal – the calf – inside. Will announced me very much like a circus rider used to be introduced by Barnum and Bailey.

Well, the calf, which was an unpleasant size, started galloping. I, knee deep in mud, galloped after it. I achieved roping it its neck. I got close enough to throw myself across its back, still running, and the cowboys yelled, “Stay with him!” The sound of their laughter still rings in my ears. I remember the jellified feeling like it was yesterday. I grabbed the calf’s left leg with my right arm. There was one terrible lurch and the calf fell over on its head in the mud. All sensation left me and I only remember being lifted up, encase in an armor of oozing dirt, and being carried on the shoulders of the cowboys to the ranch house.

Years later, when the owner of the Elkhorn Ranch had become the President of the United States, I was receiving with him and his wife at the White House. I was attired in black velvet and white plumes on my hat, when I recognized the figure of Will Merrifield.

He said, “Well now, Mrs. Douglas, it’s a sight for sore eyes to see you again. The last time I laid eyes on you, you were standing on your head in that muddy corral with your legs waving in the air!”




This Old (White) House

The White House was gutted in the early 1950s for an emergency renovation  (

One day in 1948 as First Lady Bess Truman was entertaining  in the Blue Room of the White House, the chandelier began to sway.  She sent someone upstairs to find the cause, who reported it was the butler, Alonzo Fields, walking across the room to get “the boss” a book (he was taking a bath).  This was enough to threaten collapse of the ceiling over the heads of members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The next year, the legs of Margaret Truman’s piano punctured the private dining room floor and the ceiling below.  That did it: Congress made a study of the 150 year-old structure, and it was promptly condemned.  The Trumans, evicted from their home, moved to Blair House across the street for a few years while the massive work was done.

Robert Klara writes a most interesting story in The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence (Thomas Dunne Books, 2013).  The future home of the Presidents of the United States of America was begun in 1792 after George Washington put down the cornerstone on loamy, marshy soil.   John and Abigail Adams were the first first couple to move in, in November of 1800.  It was not quite finished.

Architect James Hoban’s drawing of the executive mansion.  Hoban also helped with rebuilding after the British burned it during the War of 1812 (Library of Congress).

Andrew Jackson began adding pipes for running water in the 1830s;  James K. Polk installed pipes for gas lights during the next decade.  These improvements put a great deal of extra weight on floors and their wooden support structure.

An early photograph of the executive mansion, 1868 (

The house was redecorated often enough, but Theodore and Edith Roosevelt carried out a major overhaul in 1900 which moved offices from the second floor to a new west wing and reworked family living spaces.  The firm of McKim, Mead and White, limited by time, stabilized with steel beams.  It turned out to be triage leading to the time of the Trumans.

The Blue Room in 1902.  TR officially changed the name from Executive Mansion to White House, and added buffalo heads to walls here and there (

President Truman thought he heard ghosts walking through the hallways and knocking on doors when he first stayed there (Bess and Margaret were back home in Missouri).  It turns out at least some of the commotion came from old Virginia pine snapping as the air cooled at night.  When floor beams were examined, they were also found to have many five-inch notches, deliberately cut at an undetermined time.

Some thought the 132 rooms should be torn down and redesigned.  The president disagreed.  When its restoration was complete, the White House stood over a poured concrete basement and bomb shelter, and had new central air conditioning and heating.  The grand staircase was moved to adjoin the entryway.  Missing, though, was a substantial part of the former interiors, which the author reports could have been saved.  Truman had had foundation beams sawed into paneling for several rooms, but some materials were carried across the Potomac River to be used in army bases.  All the work had cost $5,700,000 in contrast to the home’s $230,000 original price tag.

Also in Klara’s fascinating saga are how furnishings and art were stored, which piles of rubbish turned into souvenirs, and the sordid politics among people involved.  The name of the head contractor was deleted from the official renovation report.Mr. Truman's Renovation: White House Key

President and Mrs. Truman return to reside in a safer White House in 1952 (

Subsequent commanders-in-chief and their wives have improved the heritage of the White House, replacing the reproduction tables and chairs of 1952 (some likened them to hotel furniture) with authentic antiques.  Jacquelyn Kennedy took the case to private organizations with stunning results, as shown in her nationally televised tour of the rooms.

But it was Harry who saved the place.  For all of us.

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Mrs. Kennedy’s program was not the first televised tour of the White House.  On YouTube may be seen a charming 12 minute video of President Truman leading the public, and a very young Walker Cronkite, through his reno.